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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                  225
"Hey, friend! Are you training to beat the Znamensky
brothers?"
The newcomer pulled up with a jerk. Weariness and
pain vanished from his face. He looked calmly in the
direction of the bush and without a word walked into
the wood with a strange rolling gait,
"What is he, a circus performer, or is he dotty?" in-
quired Burnazyan in perplexity.
Major Struchkov, who had just woken up from his
doze, explained:
"He has no feet. He is training on artificial ones.
Wants to go back to Fighter Command."
These words acted like a cold shower upon those
languid men. They jumped up and all began to talk at
once. They were amazed that the man about whom they
had noticed nothing peculiar, except that he walked with
a strange gait, had no feet. His idea of his flying a
fighter plane seemed absurd, incredible, even blasphe-
mous to them. They recalled stories of men being dis-
charged from the Air Force for trifling things, for losing
two fingers, for strained nerves, and even for revealing
symptoms of flat feet. Always, even in wartime, the
standard of physical fitness demanded of an air pilot was
higher than in any other arm of the service. And lastly,
they were of the opinion that it was utterly impossible
for a man with artificial feet to pilot a complicated, sen-
sitive machine like a fighter.
They all agreed that Heresyev's idea was fantastic;
nevertheless, it fascinated them.
"Your friend is either a hopeless idiot or a great man,
nothing in between," was Burnazyan's conclusion.
The news that there was in the sanatorium a footless
man who dreamed of flying a fighter plane flashed through
all the wards in an instant. By dinner-time, Alexei was
the centre of attention, although he himself did not seem
to notice it. And all those who watched him, who saw
and heard him laughing heartily with his neighbours at
the table, eating with a hearty appetite, paying the tra-
ditional compliments to the pretty waitresses, strolling
with companions in the park, learning to play croquet
and even taking a hand at the volleyball net, failed to
notice anything extraordinary about him, except the slow,